Content warning: This essay refers to disordered eating, restrictive eating, and medical procedures.
I didn’t plan on getting my gallbladder removed on Halloween, nine days after my fiancée and I moved into our new home — but that’s exactly what happened.
It’s March, and I’m supposed to meet a friend for dinner. A few hours beforehand, I start to feel swollen, bloated, gassy — pain. I’ve dealt with IBS for almost a decade at this point and am used to my digestion ruining my life, and this friend is also an IBS sufferer (everyone knows IBS is a common affliction for hot queer girls), so I simply text her to cancel and she understands. I complain to my girlfriend that I’ve never had an IBS flair so bad. I attempt to soothe the attack with all my regular tools, but nothing works. I eventually fall asleep in pain. When I wake up in the morning I’m fine.
It’s July, and I’m visiting my mom on the East Coast. We eat pizza for dinner to celebrate my brother’s birthday; tomatoes and cheese are challenging for me so I expect a stomachache. Instead I wake up in the middle of the night with severe back pain. I don’t make a connection between my digestion and my back pain; I do worry it might be a heart attack. Eventually I fall back asleep.
It’s August and my girlfriend is proposing to me the next day but I don’t know that yet. We enjoy a six course tomato feast at our local farm and when I wake in the middle of the night with searing pain in my chest, my back, my whole upper body it seems, I am angry at myself. You deserve this, I think, as I know nightshades cause inflammation in my body. What did you expect. I take heartburn meds, I take ibuprofen, I lie on an ice pack, I play Woodoku on my phone. In the morning my girlfriend is concerned — I spent a portion of the evening sending her memes that made me laugh and distracted me from the pain so she can see I was awake from 2am-5am. We use our Hitatchi on my stomach, thinking I’m dealing with gas and the vibrations might help move it around, and eventually I feel a little bit better, and we leave for our camping trip, and she proposes to me at a secluded waterfall, and we eat pizza for dinner, and my body doesn’t hurt, and I sleep through the night with my new sparkly diamond on my left ring finger.
It’s a week later and I’m up in the middle of the night in pain again. Then again. Then again. Then again, but worse. I lose track of exactly how many times I am woken in the middle of the night in pain; usually it’s located deep in my back, between my shoulder blades, and I go to my cardiologist to ask about the possibility of a heart attack because my dad died of a heart attack in the middle of the night but he assures me I am not having a heart attack. I go back to acupuncture. I stop eating tomatoes even though it is peak tomato season. I hurt.
It is September when I have my next attack and my best friend tells me the pain I’m describing reminds her of what her sister, a fellow fat queer, experienced when she had gallstones. As soon as she gives me this information, things start to click into place. I’ve never heard of gallstones, never thought about my gallbladder. But when I start talking about it, it seems like everyone has a story. It turns out many of my friends have had their gallbladders removed. Everyone knows someone who has had their gallbladder removed. I drastically shift my diet while I wait to see my doctor. I want a plan.
Two weeks later I see my doctor. She is very sympathetic and orders an ultrasound right away. She writes URGENT on the sheet but the hospital she faxes it to can’t see my for seven days. When we get the results back she confirms I have gallstones, that they are causing pain, that eating a diet consisting of no fat, no dairy, no gluten, no sugar, no caffeine, and no alcohol is not a sustainable solution. She refers me to a general surgeon at a hospital; the hospital calls a few days later and tells me they can see me in June 2023. I’m confused. It’s not urgent, they explain. The pain feels pretty urgent, I tell them. They are firm. They have reviewed my doctor’s notes and my pain is not urgent. I’m getting married in June. They can see me a week after my wedding, they say. I resign myself to not eating anything on my wedding day, for fear of inducing a severe gallstone attack and being unable to enjoy the party because of the pain.
Okay, let’s fast forward.
It’s a grilled cheese that ends up sending me to the ER. The day before Halloween we have friends over for dinner and I want a grilled cheese and I decide to eat one, gallstones be damned. Following a very restrictive diet for health reasons is a real trip when you’re a fat girl who is forever trying to recover from a disordered eating past. The line for me between treating my body well and hurting my body is not always clear; sometimes it doesn’t exist. I tell my fiancée I’m going to eat a grilled cheese and simply accept the gallstone attack. She supports my autonomy and the sometimes complicated choices I make around food, always. The grilled cheese is perfect. I feel certain the pain will be a reasonable trade for the delight I feel eating it.
I am wrong.
A few hours after I consume the perfectly crisp sourdough bread and the gooey melty delicious cheese, the upper right part of my belly starts hurting. The pain settles into my back, then my breastbone, then my entire upper core. It feels as though there is a belt around my midsection, just under my boobs, that someone is pulling tighter and tighter. I ask my fiancée if we can go for a walk to try to relieve the pain; we do, but the pain remains. It gets worse. We play a board game to try to distract me. I am writhing on the floor by the end. She makes up the guest bedroom for me and I tell her to go to bed — I don’t want her to see me throw up. I make it to the bathroom just in time to get the puke into the toilet right after I say that. I pee my pants when I puke. My fiancée asks if she can take me to the ER but I say no, let’s wait and see what happens. I spend the next ten hours puking. Finally, at 7:30am, I ask my fiancée to take me to the hospital. I only cry once the whole time: when I pee my pants while puking in the ER, topless, right as the male nurse opens the door to check on me. Then they give me drugs and then the pain stops and then I get my gallbladder removed on Halloween.
Because I am the kind of person I am, as soon as this happened, I wanted to write about it and talk about it with other people who’ve experienced the same thing. I’ve never been shy to talk about my body, and I was shocked that when I posted about my surgery on Instagram I received 50+ DMs from people — both friends and strangers — expressing that they too were gallbladder-free! Many had also experienced minimizing comments from doctors before eventually having their gallbladders removed, and many had ended up in the ER — either because a doctor had pushed aside their concern or because their first attack was as bad as my last one. I wasn’t shocked by the numbers — my research about gallstones and gallbladders since my own pain began made it clear that many, many people suffer from this pain — but I was shocked that I’d never heard about it from anyone else until my pain began. How could I have never known that so many friends and acquaintances had their gallbladders removed? Why weren’t we talking about this?!
I think a pretty simple explanation is that many people don’t want to talk at length about their bodies, about pain, about surgery, about things they may deem “private.” And that’s fine! But since I feel comfortable doing so, and since I think a lot of us have experience with gallbladder pain, I wanted to write about it and also create a Feelings Atrium space in the comments for people to share their own experiences. A lot of people who messaged me expressed that they still can’t eat “whatever they want” (even though pretty much all doctors insist that you can once you get your gallbladder removed) and some still experienced pain even after surgery. One person shared that they got a hernia because of the emergency nature of the surgery and the shock to their body. Some people were very sick before surgery and recovered quickly after; some people remained sick. Lots of people had advice about what works for them, and I felt so grateful for all the information. It’s not useful to tell someone else what they must do with their body, but it’s very useful to share knowledge so that folks can try out what works for them.
So please, use the comments as a Feelings Atrium! Share your own gallbladder/gallstone stories, share what worked for you pre or post surgery, share if something other than surgery helped you, share things you wish you knew, share it all! I only ask that everyone please try to stick with “I” statements, do not tell other commenters what to do with their health or their bodies, and do not shame anyone for how they choose to handle their ailments.
I was really scared to have my gallbladder removed. The amount of self judgment I felt — internalized fatphobia (fat and thin people get gallstones, but I definitely found myself feeling “responsible” because I’m fat) and pressure to heal my body “naturally” with supplements, acupuncture, and permanent change in diet — and my inability to meet with a surgeon to discuss my options when I knew there was something very wrong going on inside of me compounded my fears and made the entire experience scarier than it needed to be. The physical pain was the worst I have ever experienced — a level 10 for sure, possibly higher! — and yet I still felt guilty going to the ER when I finally did. I wish I hadn’t had to deal with so much confusion and so many unknowns. Having surgery was absolutely the right choice for me, and it sucks that I felt shame about it because I couldn’t have my questions answered even when I knew something was wrong.
Now, 30 days later, I’m so relieved. I am healing very well. I don’t have to micromanage my diet, a behavior that is terrible for my mental health, and I don’t have to fear experiencing level 10 pain when I eat “the wrong thing.” And I feel certain I can have some cake next June without ruining my wedding.
I didn’t plan on getting my gallbladder removed on Halloween, nine days after my fiancée and I moved into our new home — but I’m glad I did. What about you?
PS: As a fun bonus, I decided I wanted to publish a piece of science writing to accompany this very personal (and decidedly un-scientific) piece about gallbladders — and when I think of queer science writing, you know I think of Leigh Cowart, who does it the way nobody else can. Leigh, author of Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose, said yes to my request and put together the best History and Science Lesson About the Gallbladder that a gay could ever hope for. (What are you waiting for?! Click that link!!!)
Happy Gallbladder Day on Autostraddle dot com! I’m glad you’re here and I’m glad my gallbladder is not.